HC Deb 30 October 2000 vol 355 cc513-5 3.30 pm
Mr. Speaker

I have a statement to make. During the debate on defence procurement last Thursday, several points of order were raised with the Chair. Two issues in particular arose. The first issue was whether it was acceptable for a Minister to make policy announcements during a debate rather than through a statement to the House. That is a long-established practice, and announcements of the sort that were made last Thursday have been made in this way by previous Governments on a regular basis. I quite understand the anxieties that were expressed on Thursday about the practice, but it may equally be convenient for the House for announcements to be made during a debate. What is certain is that no rule or convention of the House has been broken, though I would expect Ministers to give careful thought to the matter when considering making announcements in this way.

The second issue is potentially more serious. An allegation was made that the substance of the Minister's announcement had appeared in the media before the House was informed. I must make it clear that if Ministers were to release information to the press before the House was informed of major policy developments I would regard that as an unacceptable discourtesy to the House. If that occurred, I would expect the Minister concerned to apologise to the House. With regard to last Thursday's announcement, it appears that some broadly accurate advance information reached the media. The Secretary of State for Defence has assured me that he is confident that the information did not come from his Department. I accept that assurance. Nevertheless, I expect Ministers to take measures to ensure that other authorities, who are privy to confidential information, protect it until the House has been informed. I hope that the Secretary of State will pursue the matter.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wholeheartedly welcome the points that you made, especially the second part of the statement, which dealt with information. In answer to Question 9, the Secretary of State appeared to make a statement about new policy on the deployment of troops to Sierra Leone. I wonder whether it would have been more appropriate for the right hon. Gentleman to have taken Question 9 at 3.30 pm.

Mr. Speaker

That is up to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. During last Thursday's debate, at column 448 of Hansard, I said that, if the Secretary of State had made the information available to the BBC website, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) suggested, he should apologise to the House. Even if not he, but someone from his office, were responsible for providing that information, would it be your ruling that he should apologise to the House?

Mr. Speaker

I have made a clear statement to the House. The hon. Gentleman should read it in Hansard.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Although I welcome the guidance that you have given the House, could you provide further clarification? You will understand that the difference between a statement and incorporating information in a debate is that, when a specific statement is announced in advance, hon. Members have an opportunity to come to the House and question the Minister appropriately. Under the overall umbrella of a debate, hon. Members may not be aware that such information will be made available.

At column 414 of the record of last Thursday's proceedings, the Secretary of State said: Let me complete the statement, and I shall certainly give way in due course. —[Official Report, 26 October 2000; Vol. 355, c. 414.] It would appear that the Secretary of State came to the House, and gave what amounted to a statement in a debate. However, hon. Members had not been apprised of that, and therefore had no opportunity to decide whether they should be present to take part. You will understand that distinction, Mr. Speaker. May I invite you to go further than you have already gone in making the distinction?

Mr. Speaker

I have made a statement, and I believe that the Secretary of State has got the message.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I hope that hon. Members are not seeking an expansion on my statement.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Having taken part in the proceedings last Thursday, and welcoming your ruling today, I accept. of course, that the regulations of the House were not breached. However, although the letter of our regulations may not have been breached, the spirit most certainly was. If there is a statement, right hon. and hon. Members have an opportunity to prepare and you, Mr. Speaker, in presiding over our proceedings, can ensure that there is sufficient time for questioning and that there is a proper balance of participation by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. If the Secretary of State is incorporating what is, in effect, a statement into his speech in a debate, the intervention of hon. Members is purely at the Secretary of State's discretion. That is not appropriate.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman will note that my statement referred to the Minister giving careful consideration to these matters.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Further to the second part of your statement, Mr. Speaker, which you said was the more important one in that it covered the more important issue, does not an unsatisfactory situation arise in the House? It appears that there was a leak on Thursday to the media of material that was clearly conceived and drafted in the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of State says that he personally was not responsible, but presumably that means that either one of his officials was or there was a leak from the Ministry of Defence, which in the nature of things would be a matter of considerable concern, to some other organisation, which then itself passed the information on to the media.

If we do not have the apology which you said would be required had the Minister been directly responsible, Mr. Speaker, do we not need at least an inquiry to ascertain how it was that information came from the Minister or from his office into the media? Without such an inquiry, surely the public will never be aware of what exactly occurred on Thursday. As you have said, we face a bad situation.

Mr. Speaker

I said in my statement that I hoped that the Minister would pursue the matter, and I am sure that he will.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Speaker

Is it a point of order?

Mr. Skinner

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I have listened to the points of order with increasing incredulity. Having been in this place during the 18 years when the Tories were in government, I had the impression about three times a week that policy was being announced when I listened to it on "Today" and it was repeated on "Newsnight". If we were lucky a statement would be made on the following day, or no statement would be made.

There is another area that should be examined. We live in a time when the Liberals are consulted about many things. How do we know that it is not that lot on the Liberal Benches who are doing these things?

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Speaker

Is there to be a point of order every day, Mr. Bercow?

Mr. Bercow

I assure you that it is intended to be a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful to you for your clarification in response to my point of order last Thursday about the conduct of the Secretary of State for Defence. He said on that occasion that no words—this is important, and I refer to column 424—for which he was responsible appeared upon the BBC website. It is only right to point out that the right hon. Gentleman sidled up to me earlier this afternoon to vouchsafe to me his innocence.

Will you confirm, Mr. Speaker, that it is not good enough for a Minister to go to the Member who has complained to protest his innocence? It is necessary for him openly to apologise to the House for the leak on behalf of one of his officials, which has obviously taken place.

Mr. Speaker

The Secretary of State will have heard the hon. Gentleman.